Good Things

Colin McGinn

Suppose I perform an action certified by morality as good – say, giving money to charity. I then do something good because it is good. We might say that this action had the moral property goodness and that in acknowledging this to be so I had a reason to perform it. Anyone else has an equal reason to perform the same action, which is good no matter who performs it. Thus, generalising: morality is aptly seen as a set of principles that ascribe values to states of affairs and thereby provide reasons for bringing those states of affairs about. Morality says what we ought to do and in so far as we grasp its dictates we have the reasons it specifies: we know what we ought to do, and that we ought to do it is a reason for doing it.

This commonsense picture makes many philosophers squirm, and not because they are avowed moral nihilists. There are two main reasons. The first is that it seems to presuppose moral ‘cognitivism’: the agent recognises goodness as an objective property that may be instantiated by his actions. By ascribing it to an action, he comes to know an objective truth – that his action is (or will be) good. This makes some philosophers nervous, because it suggests a metaphysics they don’t like the look of, whereby goodness becomes a ‘queer’ property of things.

There is a second reason why the picture is found rebarbative: it entails morality affording reasons for action that fail to take into account what the agent may himself desire or what may be in his interest. Once I see that giving money to charity is good I have a reason to do it, but that reason holds whether or not I want to give money to charity. I may not care about the people who will benefit, but there is still a reason for me to do it – that they will benefit. So moral reasons do not appear to depend on my contingent desires. To many philosophers that is hard to take: how could reasons not involve desires?

Philippa Foot is foremost among those who have jibbed at the notion of reasons that are independent of desires. She doesn’t believe in goodness as a property that, once recognised, provides reasons for action. Morality itself does not, for her, supply any reasons for action; reasons come in only when agents have desires that happen to conform to morality’s prescriptions:

Moral judgments are, I say, hypothetical imperatives in the sense that they give reasons for acting only in conjunction with interests and desires. We cannot change that, though we could keep up the pretence that it is otherwise. To hang onto the illusion, and treat moral judgments as necessarily reason-giving, is something I would compare to a similar choice in matters of etiquette; and indeed we do find some who treat the consideration that something is ‘bad form’ or ‘not done’ as if it had a magical reason-giving force.

That an action is morally good is thus not a reason why I should do it. I have no more reason to refrain from murder on account of its badness than I do to refrain from holding my fork in my right hand when in England, where it isn’t done. Reasons enter the picture only if I happen to desire to act in accordance with the rule in question. Morality thus has no intrinsic rational authority over our wills. There is nothing contrary to reason about not doing the right thing, and irrationality can only consist in not doing what will best satisfy our desires (which may be egoistic or altruistic).

This doctrine is rightly seen as subversive and disturbing. The mere fact that something is good is not, according to Foot, even a start at providing a reason to do it; it is the wrong kind of consideration altogether. We get into the realm of reasons only when we dig around in someone’s actual desires and decide that he happens to want to do various things, as it might be to keep promises. Reasons are internal to the agent and variable across agents; morality’s apparent universality is a fiction. This is a radical view. Instead of being able to say to the miscreant ‘You should do such and such’ and expect this to supply him with a reason, we can only say ‘If you look inside yourself, you will see that you really want to do such and such.’ Rational persuasion then comes to an end if he retorts ‘Actually, I don’t want to do such and such, thank you very much.’

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